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Music’s Play on Wine

Story by Mike Sherwood / Photos by Andrea Johnson

Do you prefer Pavarotti or Pink Floyd with your Pinot Noir? ZZ Top or Zappa with your Zinfandel? Mendelssohn or Metallica with your Merlot? Choose carefully, as it will make a difference on how you perceive the flavors of your favorite wine. Listening to Frank Sinatra probably won’t make your glass of wine taste any better, but it will affect how your brain reacts to the wine in your glass. 

Restaurateur Drew Gibb has always considered music a crucial part of establishing the right mood for the restaurant and wine bar housed in his Ashland B&B, The Winchester Inn. He believes, “a wine taste best in a specific setting.”

The Winchester Inn’s musical tableau is almost always instrumental and typically jazz; starting the evening with something lively like Charlie Parker bebop and ending the night with music from the Zen master himself, Miles Davis. Gibb notes, “something mid-career and cerebral like ‘Miles Ahead’ or ‘Kinda Blue’.”

Gibb is not alone in his pairing of jazz and wine. The Horse Radish Cheese & Wine Bar in Carlton also favors jazz standard bearers, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, to pair with its offerings. 

In 1998, Don Blackburn, a French-trained winemaker now making wine in California, presented the idea at a wine symposium that different music changed the perception of the wine being consumed. Blackburn was interested in “synesthesia,” in which real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. At the symposium, he poured three different vintages of his Chardonnay and played 10 different pieces of classical music. With four out of the 10 pieces of music, everyone agreed that the music somehow “worked” best with the wine they were drinking. That left six of the musical selections that somehow clashed with the wine.

Synesthesia—from the ancient Greek word for “together” and “sensation”—is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second pathway. Its reality and vividness are what make synesthesia so interesting in its violation of conventional perception. 

Consider this: Hearing The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” can instantly transport the listener to a plethora of psychedelic rock; and for those of us who were there, to a time and place where we first heard this album. It happens involuntarily and in the blink of an eye. Music is the sort of emotional touchstone that triggers other senses and perceptions.

In one form of synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored. Music composers Duke Ellington and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov experienced musical notes as colors, yet another aspect of synesthesia. It’s not hard to extrapolate that music can evoke an involuntary reaction to the food you eat and the wine you drink.

“Music influences the way wine tastes,” said writer Blake Gray of the San Francisco Chronicle. “This seems obvious and is the reason professional tastings are done in silence. If food, glassware, ambient temperature, perfume and the people sitting next to you all influence the taste of wine, why wouldn’t music?”

“Rich, bold. Nuanced, delicate, subtle.” Words such as these are used constantly to describe the finer points of a great… piece of music? But they are also used just as commonly to describe a great wine,” noted Brad Prescott, writer for the online publication Into Wine. “Given that wine and music can share so many of the same descriptive characteristics, it would seem logical that drinking a delicate and crisp Sauvignon Blanc while listening to a delicate and crisp piano sonata would enrich the experience of tasting the wine and hearing the music.”

A few years back, winemaking provocateur and California wine consultant Clark Smith spent months with various tasting panels sampling 150 different wines with 250 different songs to find harmonies and discordances. He believed the music was changing the perceived flavor of the wines. “I became struck with the idea that music IS liquid music and that a wine has an emotional modality that could be expressed in song,” said Smith.

In Clark’s experiments with wine and music, most tasters agree on the results: Pinot Noir is good with Mozart, but Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t.

Jonathan Carfax, a wine lover and computer geek who has done his own experiments with wine and music, had this to say: “One analogy as to how and why the brain may function in this way is derived from my knowledge of how computers work. Based on the instructions of a ‘controlling clock’, the chips take turns controlling the shared ‘message bus’ in sequence. I think our mind must execute some similar protocols for controlling certain brain pathways and they are shared among our auditory music and taste sensations processing efforts.”

Could the brain be crossing signals between wine and music? Could certain music truly complement a particular wine while another specific song makes that same wine seem incoherent?

A recent research study has shown that wines reflect a bit of the personality of the music they are paired with. Red wines tend to be enhanced by soulful music. Strangely enough, polka and White Zinfandel seem to be a match made in heaven, which is either a dis to polka or White Zinfandel, I’m not sure which.  

“For Pinot Noir, you want romantic music, something sexy,” said Smith. “Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ with a good Burgundy from the Côtes de Nuits. Strauss is good with a New World Pinot Noir; the more violins and French horns, the better. Cabernet Sauvignons like dark, angry music. Oddly, this genre will smooth out their otherwise aggressive tannins. Try something bold like the overture to ‘Carmina Burana’ by Carl Orff. “It’s too bad, but it’s very hard to find a piece of music that’s good for both Pinot and Cabernet.”

Multiple research projects conducted at a Scottish university indicate that background music definitely influences the perceived taste of wine. The specific taste of the wine was influenced in a manner consistent with the mood evoked by the music. “Powerful and heavy” music had tasters perceiving the wine as embodying the aforementioned attributes. The same was found for music termed “subtle and refined,” “zingy and refreshing” and “mellow and soft.” The perception of the wine reflected the music in the background. The magnitude of these effects was not insubstantial, and they were stronger for reds than for whites.

Skeptical? I wouldn’t blame you. Try your own experiment at home. Invite some friends over. Open three bottles of different wines; something white, something red, something bold. Play a variety of songs from your music library, and see if you’re not convinced. Worse case, you and your friends have a heck of a time trying to tame the wild beast within a huge Columbia Valley Cab or a Southern Oregon Tempranillo while listening to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

If you want to pull in a wider variety of music into the experiment, I recommend you sign onto www.pandora.com, the Internet radio website that streams music to your computer, genre by genre. Pandora allows you to personalize your radio to the music you like and helps you find new music based on your past and current favorites.

Pandora came out of The Music Genome Project, where a group of musicians and music-loving technologists came together with the idea of creating a comprehensive analysis of music to capture its essence at the most fundamental level. They ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or “genes” into a very large music genome. Taken together, these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song—everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics and, of course, the rich world of singing and vocal harmony.

They carefully listened to the songs of tens of thousands of different artists—ranging from popular to obscure—and analyzed the musical qualities of each song one attribute at a time. The result is an extraordinary collection of music analysis that can help be your guide as you explore the juxtaposition of wine and music.

Only you can decide if Delta blues makes your Syrah seem sassier or if brooding post-punk music from The Clash will enhance your Cab. The Music Genome Project has done their homework. Now it’s your turn.

Mike Sherwood is a freelance writer based in Dundee, and the owner of the Sub Rosa Spirits distillery.

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